Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The incredible Sargy Mann and the amazing powers of the brain

I recently visited the exhibition of Sargy Mann’s latest paintings. It was really a dazzling festival of colour. There were exquisite juxtapositions – brilliant orange against light green, violent red against a nervous purple, a yellow against a calming blue. All the paintings were representations of his wife, Frances.

What is amazing about all this is that these are the paintings of Sargy since he became completely blind. Never in his previous and much admired work has there been such an explosion of colour. He explains that his memory for colour and “for how colours will look together…and even the feel of how much pigment on the brush to mix with how much of another colour” is still very good. But the loss of sight has given him a freedom that he did not have before – a sort of restriction imposed by the reality of the seen world of which he is now free. In deciding to paint a chair, he thought to himself, “…you silly bugger, you won’t be able to see it. You can make the chair any colour you like. This was a breakthrough and of course it applied equally to all other surfaces…” “From then on, I chose the colour chord for each painting intuitively, thinking in an overtly decorative way which, before, I would never have allowed myself to do. It seems that blindness has given me the freedom to use colour in ways that I would not have dared to when I could see”. And what a result! The sighted viewer is intrigued by un-accustomed colour juxtapositions and aesthetically mesmerised by them.

Because those who become colour blind following damage to the colour centre in the brain – area V4 – are often unable to even remember colours or their quality, I assume that Sargy’s V4 is intact and healthy. Nor is his colour experience equivalent to the phantom chromatopsia which I described in a previous blog, and which is also a consequence of retinal blindness, for in that condition only few colours are experienced and they are restricted in space.

Sargy’s paintings in brilliant colour raise very interesting questions about the healthy – indeed vigorous – functioning of a visual area that is deprived of a visual input and must rely entirely on memory. But it also raises another point which I alluded to in my last blog, namely creativity in the absence of all restrictions, inhibitions and censorship. Here we have it from a painter’s own words, but above all from his wonderful canvases, how artistically healthy this freedom is! Finally, it also of course raises the neurological problem of how the prohibition on the use of certain colours, implied in the statement “which, before, I would never have allowed myself to do” works.

I look forward so much to the next batch of paintings from Sargy Mann.

Monday, May 26, 2008

The haunting beauty of Tord Gustavsen’s paintings…and Cézanne

Tord Gustavsen’s sublime jazz improvisations are a sort of musical painting, and not only because, for me at least, they induce a synaesthetic visual impression of vast and lonely spaces and an extraordinary sensuality. I have listened to the lonely notes that introduce At Home and Draw Near time and time again and they never fail to create that visual impression. I do not know whether this is unique to me or whether others share the experience. But Gustavsen discusses visual imagery in his article entitled The Dialectical Eroticism of Improvisation, so I cannot be far off the mark. How one sensory input provokes another is of course a problem that is worthy of study in neurobiological terms. But the article offers a very interesting musical glimpse into the problem of improvisation, coming as it does from a master improviser and raises important issues in the neurobiological study of creativity. And it also raises in my mind some parallels between the characteristics of improvisation in music and painting.

Gustavsen thinks of improvisation as “on-the-spot composing [which] involves a certain amount of on-the-spot analysis”, a process in which the composer is “constantly forming and being formed by” the music being improvised. The composer-improviser is thus changing through the music that he or she is composing. In this, the process is perhaps not vastly different – except in the time scale – from painting. Henri Matisse once wrote, “A Cézanne is a moment of the artist, not of nature…Despite the continual use of the same means, there are different effects; it’s the man, Cézanne, that has changed” (my emphasis). What is the neural process that mediates such a change, which in the case of music must be immediate?

There is, as well, the emphasis on the continual play between whet he calls the micro and the macro levels, while maintaining the unity of the whole work. This is the advice that Denis Diderot gave, advice passed to Cézanne by Piassaro and enthusiastically accepted by the latter: “Nothing is beautiful without unity”, to which Cézanne replied: “I advance… all of my canvas at once, together. In the same movement, the same conviction, I bring into relation everything that is scattered” since “Only from their sum, their relation and interaction, do the objects they define reveal themselves to the viewer”– a description that can equally, and accurately, be used to describe the improvisations of Gustavsen.

In the process of improvisation, the musician may make mistakes or take unsatisfactory steps. “When you disappoint yourself, it is therefore crucial to be able to transform the disappointment into a kind of challenge that can enter into a dynamic dialectical movement towards satisfying totalities”…much as I imagine Cézanne and other painters – when they make a mistake – use the mistake as a challenge to enter into a new dynamic.

Gustavsen is insistent on the critical role of the listener. He writes: “The shaping of a musical landscape takes place in the listener”. Not dissimilar to the (then) controversial view of Cézanne: “I conceive of [painting] as a personal apperception. I situate this apperception in sensation, and I ask that the intelligence organize it into a work”.

There are, of course, many other interesting points in Gustavsen’s article and above all in his music. I have highlighted only some here, to draw attention to the similarity in the creative process. A reading of Gustavsen’s article and his music show the enormous challenge to the neurobiologist who wants to understand the neural bases of creativity – the integration of the micro with the macro within a concept, the use of working and long-term memory, the mobilisation of the emotional and motor brain, the planning and the execution – a lifetime’s work, I imagine.

There is however one element that I missed in Gustavsen’ s article, but which I hear in his music. That relates to censorship – I mean self-censorship. It was Schopenhauer and Wagner who insisted that a work of art should flow “from the sub-conscious”. I take this clumsy phrase to mean that it should be free from the worry that it may not accord with the views or concepts of listeners or from the artist’s inhibitions; I take it to mean, in brief, that it must be free of all censorship and above all self-censorship. As with Ella Fitzgerald’s marvellous modulatory improvisations, or Martha Argerich’s sensational rendering of Chopin’s Second Piano Concerto (and especially its second movement), one feels that (in spite of what he says about the listener), Gustavsen is playing for himself and in the process engaging the listener more. Self-censorship must, possibly imposed by activity in the frontal lobes, surely be one of the greatest enemies of art in general and improvisation in particular. Perhaps this is best summarised in the opening lines of Marcel Proust’s Contre Sainte-Beuve:

“Chaque jour, j’attache moins de prix a l’intelligence. Chaque jour, je me rends mieux compte que ce n’est qu’en dehors d’elle que [l’artiste] peut…atteindre quelque chose de lui même et la seul matière de l’art”

which in free, rather than literal, translation, can be rendered into:

“Every day, I attach less importance to intelligence. Every day, I become more aware that it is only outside it that the [artist] can… attain something of himself and the only material of art”

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Musical inspiration at a cognitive neuroscience meeting

The Cognitive V meeting in Marmaris, Turkey, organized by Professor Oğuz Tanridağ, had an unusual element, a daily recital.

Now there is nothing unusual about that. Many meetings organize a musical recital to entertain attendees and speakers and perhaps provide a pleasant distraction after an intellectually demanding day.

What was unusual about the Marmaris meeting was the timing of the recital – first thing in the morning, before the lectures and seminars.

This is an ingenious idea. There are many good reasons for listening to music before listening to, or delivering, lectures. They provide, first of all, an inspiration, which is always a good thing. But standards in music are very high and, one hopes, that these very high standards cross boundaries to instill in the rest of us a desire to achieve high standards too. When it comes to giving lectures, very few - or perhaps none - begin to approach the high standards of musical performers. The ums and ahs with which so many of us incessantly infect our lectures, the occasional or sometimes serially wrong order of slides, the film clips that do not function adequately, the excess of slides which we skip because we did not prepare according to the time allotted to us…all these, or their equivalents, would be intolerable in any musical performance. Performers would be booed off the stage for far lesser transgressions than that, as many eminent singers have discovered.

But there is more to music than that. I often listen to a symphonic work before preparing and giving a lecture and learn a lot from it (in preparing my Marmaris lecture and before delivering it, I listened to Beethoven’s Triple Concerto). A symphonic work has, after all, a structure, it has a theme which is developed and recapitulated, or there are variations on a theme, tempi that have to be integrated into the structure, changes in emphasis – all these teach one a lesson in how to deliver a lecture even if one never achieves the high standards of musical performances.

Of course, great artists themselves often fail the high standards that they set themselves, even if we are not always aware of their shortcomings, as we are of obviously faulty lectures. Herbert von Karajan was once asked if his performances, which gave pleasure to so many, gave him true satisfaction. He replied that the performances after which he could say, “This time I got it right” could be counted on the fingers of one hand.

So maybe the idea of having recitals before having the lectures was a pleasant – and highly effective – way of reminding the speakers, musically, to maintain high standards. And it worked very well. It is an ingenious idea that other conference organizers might consider adopting.

As an aside, one of the many reasons for choosing Beethoven’s Triple Concerto before my lecture is that it is beautiful but not in the least emotional, at least to me. Beauty without emotion…now there’s a subject for a future blog.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Ich bin ein Berliner...

A great event took place in Berlin last week – the launch of the Association of Neuroesthetics (AoN), the brain child of Alexander Abbushi. The meeting brought together neurobiologists and artists, and a packed house that included even lawyers. The speakers seemed able to talk and address each other with ease. Nowhere was there a hint of the much written about “two cultures” of CP Snow. Hence in his presentation Philippe Rahm, an architect, relied on scientific evidence as the basis for his designs, Olafur Eliasson discoursed on his work which has undercurrents of enormous interest to neuroesthetics – time, uncertainty, ambiguity – while Christine Macel, a curator, also emphasized the element of time in the artists she chose to speak about. Ernst Poppel, a psychologist, gave a talk which sits as easily in a scientific auditorium as in an art gallery. To round up the evening, there was a wonderful reception and dinner at a Berlin restaurant with pre-Weimar rooms – very atmospheric and perhaps symbolic of the new vitality of Berlin. In that setting, scientists and artists seemed to be able to converse with each other with even less difficulty.

It may seem strange that the AoN should be based at the Charité Hospital, among the largest in Europe, and that the driving force behind it, Alexander Abbushi, should be a neurosurgeon by trade. Well, it shows something important in science – especially during our times – that the crossing of boundaries is relatively easy when the interest and curiosity are there. In his endeavour, Abbushi has had strong support at the highest levels of the Hospital but above all from the Director of the Department of Neurosurgery, Peter Vajkoczy. In fact, all this is not any more strange than the meeting at the Italian Academy at Columbia, which I reported about in a previous blog. The Italian Institute, more used to dealing with issues relating to Italian art and humanistic traditions, also had a full house when neuroscientists addressed brain issues that are of interest to the study of art and creativity. The establishment of the AoN at the Charité is perhaps even less strange, and in fact very apt, when one considers that among those who worked there in the past was none other than the great German physicist and physician, Hermann von Helmholtz, the founder of the discipline of psychophysics and an expert on colour vision (Young-Helmholtz theory of colour vision). But Helmholtz was a polyhistor, also interested in the arts and aesthetics, and wrote about music and painting.

So perhaps what Abbushi and his colleagues have done is not to bring in a new culture that would bridge the gap between CP Snow’s “two cultures”. Rather, they have resurrected an approach that goes back to Helmholtz, and before him to Immanuel Kant, Arthur Schopenhauer and even Plato and which has been merely dormant for well over a century.

Well done Alexander, well done Charité Hospital, well done Berlin…and well done neuroesthetics.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Social Synaesthesia and Human Resources

An interesting article in The Times Higher Education by my colleague David Colquhoun has inspired me to write this blog, in which I describe a condition that is well known but, to the best of my knowledge, has not hithero been categorized and named. I call it social synaesthesia.

Synaesthesia is a condition in which one sensory input provokes two sensory experiences. A good example relates to colour, when different musical notes produce in the brain of the perceiver different colours, each colour specific to a note. Several composers reputedly have had the condition. Another example, also related to colour, is one in which different Arabic numerals are perceived in different, and distinctive, colours. It is important to observe that when “normal” people listen to notes, the activity in their brain is limited to the auditory cortex. With synaesthetes, the notes not only produce activity in the auditory brain but also in the colour centre of the visual brain – area V4 – implying that there are direct connections between the two brain centres in synaesthetes but not in “normals”. Obviously enough people have the condition for there to be synaesthesia societies in Europe and the United States.

In truth, synaesthesia may encompass a great deal more. I myself have a synaesthesia that I thought was bizarre until I discovered (after having written briefly about it in a synaesthesia newsletter) that it is not as uncommon as I had presumed. My synaesthesia consists in associating words with distinct personalities that are not easy to describe but which I definitely experience. The first letter of a word determines largely, but not exclusively, the personality. This can lead to extraordinary personality changes. For example, I always associated Calcutta and Bombay with distinct personalities. Now that these have changed to Kolkata and Mumbai, respectively, so have their personalities for me. It is actually a condition that has enriched my life in a variety of ways, and I would hate to be without this “abnormal” condition.

A personality change, brought about by re-naming their profession, is precisely what seems to have happened in the example of Human Resources, which is nothing more than a new name for what was commonly known as the Personnel Department. Human Resources is a grandiose but strangely inappropriate term for the old profession. It implies a deep knowledge of human desire, motivation and action derived from a profound knowledge of the human condition through a study of psychology and world literature. The French, too, have adopted the term wholesale. And how pompous it sounds in French, when applied to the old Personnel Department – resources humaines! I can just imagine some unpublished manuscript by André Malraux, hidden in a Paris attic and suddenly discovered, entitled Les Resources humaines – perhaps a companion novel to his La Condition humaine or perhaps a first draft of it! How hilarious that would be!

These are not mere speculations, for in the case of Human Resources, the change in name from Personnel Department, has actually brought up a synaesthetic change in personality, one that is well worth a neurobiological investigation, given its social importance in regulating the affairs of institutions, including universities. No longer content with dealing with admittedly highly important matters such as salaries and wages and other such-like, the change in name has given them a wholly undeserved confidence and mystique that enables them to be promoted to “senior management” teams and even dictate the number and type of courses that employees, even senior and highly intelligent ones, should take. Some of these courses verge on the absurd, as David has pointed out in his many blogs. Handing such powers over to them constitutes an abdication by the universities of their responsibilities – that of dictating the type and quality of course that a university should offer. This abdication is obviously brought about by the perceived change in the capacities of those who deal with matters belonging to traditional personnel departments through the application of a new term. It constitutes a socially transmitted example of synaesthesia, but one which still requires some re-organization of the brain. Hence the synaesthetic change in personality has also a social dimension, for it obviously induces a change in the belief of others that those who have so renamed and thus reinvented and upgraded themselves have indeed acquired an insight and knowledge that their erstwhile colleagues of personnel departments had not. Nor does it end there. For the synaesthetic change in personality brought about by a name change seems also to have induced a perceptual change in others. Human resources departments are hated and despised by most other members of the institutions that they profess to run and organize, a contempt that is linearly related to their seeming incapacity to understand and handle human resources (now used in its proper context). It is no wonder, as David says in his blog, that some highly successful businessmen think it desirable to do away with them altogether.

From a neurobiological perspective, just as synaesthesia is worth studying to shed light on what kind of connections and processes in the brain are modified to enable one sensory input to provoke another, so it would be really worth investigating neurobiologically how a change in name can alter so radically peoples’ perception of themselves, as well as others perception of them. Perhaps a detailed longitudinal study, using functional magnetic resonance imaging, for the future?